The first half-dozen years or so of the 21st century saw some of the strongest arguments that a Golden Age of Television had arrived. Many of those were produced by HBO, from the New Jersey mobscapades of The Sopranos to the sprawling social canvas of The Wire. While it was cancelled after three season, the Western series Deadwood stands tall among the standouts of that time. Even thirteen years after its cancellation, it’s difficult to find a series as accomplished, with an ensemble cast as strong, and with writing as distinct.
And, as so many cancelled series, Deadwood never got to finish the story its creator, David Milch, was hoping to tell. Its three seasons were relatively self-contained, but within them Milch was building towards greater themes. He was telling a story about the creation of a community from chaos, the taming of the frontier in search of something greater, the foundational acts of corruption and murder and the moments of grace in between them.
Arguably, the greatest asset of Deadwood was its cast of characters, brought to life by Milch’s language, a potent mix of vulgar and quasi-Shakespearean, and delivered by the series’ cast. Like so many of the early HBO greats, Deadwood tells a story that is specifically American and specifically about America, and the diverse set of characters reflected this, its cast of saloon owners and brothel-keepers, prostitutes and crooks, drunkards, gamblers, priests, lawmen and murderers. All of them were complex, flawed creations, sometimes surprising you, and themselves, with savagery one moment and acts of mercy the next.
When Deadwood was cancelled in 2006, for me it wasn’t its unfinished story that hurt most. The series found a good point on which to end, one that maintained the ambiguities of the setting and characters. But I would miss those characters and that world, more than I’d imagined at the beginning when I got started on a Western series in spite of not having any strong feelings towards the genre. Occasionally the actors would pop up in other films and series, some more than others, but as I’ve also found with the likes of The Wire and Six Feet Under, their parts and performances rarely lived up to the heights of Deadwood. The appearances mostly suffered from the comparison; few writers are as much of a gift to a good actor as Milch and his collaborators were.
Over the years, there had often been talk of Milch trying to bring the band together again for a final hurrah, a limited series or a film, but as actors left and continued their careers elsewhere this rarely seemed like more than a very remote possibility. With every news post announcing that Milch and HBO were talking I found myself trying not to get too excited, because what would invariably follow was disappointment.
That’s not what happened the last time round there were talks between David Milch and HBO. Instead, HBO gave the green light, Milch wrote a script, the cast was assembled – and other than the actors who had sadly died since the series had gone off the air (Powers Boothe, Ralph Richeson, you’re remembered) and the actors whose characters had died in the series they’d got practically everyone to return to finish Deadwood‘s story.
How often do such continuations ten or more years after the original go well? The Veronica Mars movie didn’t offer much beyond fan service (though the most recent series, another surprise revival, is a more worthy attempt). On the other hand, while the recent Twin Peaks was a very different beast from the original series, it brought something new and fresh to the table while also returning those familiar faces to the screen and confusing the hell out of us, just the way we were hoping. And perhaps, perhaps, when it comes to something like Deadwood, ‘more of the same’ wasn’t the worst scenario.
The sad thing is, the Deadwood film is enjoyable, the actors still know how to deliver Milch’s language, and there are many scenes that are a joy to watch, but it is very much ‘more of the same’. The plot is a rehash of the third season, though topped with the bow of a reasonably happy resolution, and too many scenes are good in no small part because they recall very similar scenes in the series. In a way, Deadwood: The Movie doesn’t feel all that different from the Veronica Mars film: it comes across as a class reunion of sorts, an extended opportunity to remember when we knew these characters, a long time ago, and to marvel at how old some of them have become. (It was more than a little uncanny, though, to watch this one night after Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, in which Timothy Olyphant looks younger than he used to when Deadwood was originally being made, and to then see him look at least 20 years older in this one.)
In hindsight, Deadwood: The Movie makes the final episode of the series feel like a more earned finale, even if the series was cut short by cancellation. Its delicate balance of tragedy and relief at having, if not vanquished, then at least survived a powerful adversary and an expected catastrophe felt of a piece with the world that Milch had created, a world in which good people don’t often win but they keep trying, and in which the ruthless and dangerous can be just as vital and necessary a part of a community as its weakest members. What we get in Deadwood: The Movie provides a sense of closure that the series didn’t have, but maybe, just maybe, it didn’t need that closure, because that’s not the picture of America Milch wanted to paint on his broad canvas.
There are definitely worse ways to remember Deadwood than to watch the movie, and I am happy for the cast and for David Milch that they got this opportunity, not least because Milch most likely won’t get another one. It is a lovingly made tribute to the original series and I would be lying if I said I didn’t find pleasure in seeing these people again, a dozen years older, in the world where I first got to know them, a world that was in the constant process of changing into something else, something new, but where some things never changed: the powerful would prevail, everyone else would try their best, and the community would survive, somehow. But it is difficult not to wonder what the fourth season of Deadwood would have been like – and regret that, even if the film is enjoyable, it never once feels necessary.